What do historians do?

TL; DR version: look at old stuff, think about it, write about it, and teach it.

I mean besides kicking butt at Trivial Pursuit. 😉 This seems to be something of a mystery, and historians haven’t done a great job of clearing things up. The answer that most historians give is that historians try to understand the past. But this isn’t really a satisfying answer for most people, since it sounds more like a philosophy than anything else. So in today’s blog post, following up from last week, I’m going to tell you exactly what historians do inside their little hobbit holes.

Scientists of the Human Experience

Humans as a species are filled with curiosity about the world around them and a desire to find out how things work. You can see this if you watch a baby for a few minutes or spend an afternoon with a three year-old whose favourite word is “why?”(assuming you don’t kill said child). As we grow older, many lose this innate sense of curiosity and wonder, or at least relegate it to a hobby or side interest. But some of us don’t, and are instead driven by an intense need to know everything. Such individuals dedicate years of study to this task. We call them historians.


Wait, What? Isn’t She Talking about Scientists?

Nope, I’m talking about historians. Our society separates science and humanities into two sharp categories. But this is an artificial distinction, largely based on the methods that are used by the individuals in question.  Both are simply different ways of understanding the world. The difference between a historian and a scientist is the same as the difference between a biologist and a chemist. How do I know this? I started in science.


Isn’t History the Study of the Past?

History, at its most basic level, is about understanding who we are, where we come from, where we are going, and what it means to be human. As one of my professors, Eric Sager, put, it, “History is not the past, dead and gone for all but a few fact-obsessed zealots. History is the past that exists in the present: it is the social memory that guides us between past, present and future. Without it, we have amnesia, and we cannot see our way clearly.” When historians study the past, they do this with an eye toward understanding the present and shaping a better future.


The “So What?” Question

Learning for the sake of learning is not the goal of history, though it’s easy to forget this. Most historians don’t conduct research simply out of a desire to know more. Rather, all research must have a purpose. Or, as the inestimable Peter Baskerville taught me, by the end of every essay you should be able to answer the following questions: “So what?” and “Why should we care?”


Insanity: Repeating the Same Thing Over and Over Again and Expecting Different Results

Most historical research involves trying to understand what happened before in order to do better next time. Because humans, as a rule, can be kind of dumb. We tend to do the same things over and over again, without learning from our past mistakes. Historians are trying to prevent this from happening. Think of them like your mother when she tells you not to stick your finger in the electrical socket. Bet you wish you listened to her after you got electrocuted!


How Do They Do This?

The short answer: read. The long answer: read everything. Historians, like scientists, learn through observation. They pose a question, look for evidence that supports or refutes their proposed answer, and based on this evidence, they make a conclusion. Historians do this primarily by looking at what are called primary sources. These are historical documents, meaning they were produced in the past. This is as opposed to secondary sources, which are analyses that come after an event has happened. Primary sources are often written documents, like books, magazines, newspapers, and diaries, but they can also be videos, radio transmissions, interviews, clothing, and photographs. This can involve looking at an enormous amount of material.


For example, at last count, I have roughly 15,000 pages of material for my current research project, and I still think there are gaps I need to fill. Historians undergo extensive training to be able to learn how to read these sources (see my discussion of this in “Do You Have to be a Historian To Do History?”). They also compare what they find to what other historians have said before by reading secondary sources. When both are combined, historians can then interpret the past.


Now What?

It’s all well and good to do research and write it up. But unless you communicate that knowledge, it’s useless. I think this is one area where historians have failed spectacularly in recent years. Historical texts, in both book and article formats, have become virtually unreadable to the average person. It’s become a joke that only 10 people will ever read an academic history book, and those will be either related to you or your supervisor. While writing plays a part in communicating history, so do your verbal skills.


Our Prisoners…. err…. Students….

One of the most important ways that historians disseminate their knowledge is through lecturing in a classroom setting. The goal of any history class is for your history professor to present important information about the past in a way that is accessible. This is your professor’s chance to tell you about the latest research, maybe even their own! Again, this is an area where historians are failing miserably, which is why so many people think history classes are boring. Many people believe that history is basically just the memorization of names and dates. But it is really about understanding our world and ourselves so that we can do better next time. Historians, especially your professors, hope you will take this understanding of the past and apply it to the present and the future. This relationship between professor and student is central to what historians do, and it is definitely something we can do better.


Historians to Arms!

It is also the responsibility of historians to communicate the past to the general public. Many historians are driven by a keen sense of social justice, and try to expose underlying power structures in order to help others. They do this principally by engaging with the media. For example, at the height of the Syrian Refugee Crisis, historians in Canada (and many other places) spoke out about the importance of wealthier nations accepting as many refugees as possible. In Canada, historians pointed out how Canada refused entry to Jews fleeing the Holocaust in the 1930s and 1940s  or the Komagata Maru incident, and later came to deeply regret those decisions. These historians also pointed out that in instances where Canada has accepted refugees, like the Vietnamese Boat People, these individuals have gone on to be valuable contributors to our society as workers and as philanthropists. And this time, Canada listened. As the descendant of refugees fleeing oppression in Eastern Europe, this was a huge moment for me.


So what do historians do? We read lots of documents, we think about what we read, we write up our interpretations, and we tell others about what we found. And we do all of this with an eye towards understanding the human experience and making a better future. It might not seem very exciting to some. We might not be Indiana Joneses, trekking through the wilderness, making amazing discoveries, and buckling swashes, but we do very important work. And those of us who get to do this are lucky indeed. If you want more information about the technical aspects of doing history, I’d recommend checking out Liz Covart’s Ben Franklin’s World’s Podcast’s series on Doing History, especially Episode 070: Jennifer Morgan, How Historians Research


All of the noble intensions aside, doing history is fun! It’s exciting to explore other times and places. I like to think about it as looking into lit windows at night. You get a short peek into the lives of strangers. Is it voyeuristic and slightly creepy? Absolutely! But is it fun? Damn straight. But I’d love to hear what you think! Have you ever been inspired to do something because of a historian or history teacher? Any ideas on how historians can communicate better? Do you secretly love looking into people’s windows too? (one of us… one of us….) Let me know in the comments below!


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